In observing Bass Cafe staff, student observed classism

To the Editor:

I had coffee in the Library cafe during the Thanksgiving break: The space was practically empty. As I was quietly caffeinating myself in a corner, I overheard a conversation between the head janitor of the cafe (a Hispanic man in a dark blue uniform, a heavy set of keys swaying at his waist) and his supervisor (a Caucasian man not in uniform, but wearing a bright yellow work jacket), who was asking him about his subordinates.

The head janitor was complaining about a disruptive woman working under him. He said she was dissatisfied with the white cleaning rags they use to clean the posh new (travertine?) tables in Bass. I know, having spilled on them yesterday, that they react strangely when wet. They don’t quite absorb the water, and then darken. She complained that she had to double swab these strange tables — “it’s double work,” she said. The head janitor was unsympathetic. He then went on to say something disparaging about “the other one” who works under him, who’s “a little slow” etc.

They went on about this, rather loudly and very comfortably, until a library staff member (a lady we’ve seen many times at the circulation desk) emerged from the double doors of the library into the cafeteria. When they noticed her presence, they immediately stiffened and quieted down. I thought to myself, how strange that right before me there’s a class panorama that I’d never noticed so starkly in the presence of our usual crowds.

It is the chain of subordination that recurrently plays out in our public spaces whether we see them or not: Our head janitor (downtalking his female subordinates) and his boss, and the class divide between them and the circulation staff librarian. Who, I noticed, was at that moment ordering a cursory coffee from women in uniform at the kiosk, but standing a little meekly next to a professorial looking man, waiting in line for his turn. There I was, watching them size each other up, so to speak.

And it all started with the strange, richly veined tabletops in the Bass Library, which some architect/interior designer thought fitting for an expensive looking public space (so that those in the know, perhaps, might arch an approving eyebrow and think, “Ah, the sleek simplicity … so van der Rohe … ”) — but, damn it, it’s hard to clean. One of these beautiful, brittle, richly veined tables in the basement of Bass, by the way, has already cracked from our excessive leaning; spend some time down there and you’ll hear the librarians lamenting, the construction workers cursing, and see those beautiful table corners awkwardly bandaged in masking tape.

I can’t help but think, after seeing a scene like this, that classism is about who you have the power to overlook. Whose concerns you have the power to override. And being aware of your position in this panorama involves asking yourself: Who aren’t you noticing today? Or, rather: Who can you afford not to notice today?

I’d like to conclude by asking the News and its readers a question which might seem to you an absurdity — not in order for you to answer it, but rather for you to interrogate why it’s absurd that I’m asking you: Should the tables have to be double-swabbed?

A. Lienau

Nov. 20

Lienau is a third-year graduate student in the Comparative Literature Department.


  • Anonymous

    Is this a joke? This is an example of "classism" to you? Perhaps there are other explanations that make more sense. Workers often gripe about their work. There is nothing really wrong with that. Everybody gripes either laterally (to their coworkers) or up (to their bosses). It is considered bad form, and bad management to gripe down. This principle is in management training and also appears in "Saving Private Ryan", when Tom Hanks' character talks to his platoon. You said the men were talking loudly and quieted when the librarian walked in. Librarians are famous for shusshing students. Perhaps the men were piping down because they were trained from elementary school to do so when the librarian came around. Perhaps there was an actual history of discussions among the men and the librarian and they were uncomfortable in her presence. Perhaps they had seen this librarian engaged in friendly conversation with the employee being discussed and they didn't want to talk in her presence.

    Should the tables have to be swabbed twice? Yes, if that's what it takes. Should management know that cleaning thirty tables takes an hour when it used to take a half hour? Yes.

  • Anonymous

    What is the rhetorical/logical/behavioral problem whereby one reinforces one's own world view by discounting other possible explanations?

  • Anonymous

    A pretty good example of what happens when someone spends all day studying something mindless like "Comparative Literature."

  • Anonymous

    Though I authored this letter to the editor, I didn't author it's title ("Student observes classism in Bass over a cup of coffee")-- a rather heavy-handed one, which frames the letter like an accusation (not my intention; read it as an accusation, and of course, it's a completely naive one; yes, the head Janitor of Bass has every right to tell his subordinates how to clean the tables in his care). I don't think what I'm describing is an "observation of classism" exactly-- the letter was inspired by a stark panoramic scene, though a completely banal moment, one in which the awkwardness of people to their superiors, and the indifference of superiors to their subordinates, was weirdly obvious, given the absence of students (you had to have been there, I guess). It's absolutely natural for us, in everyday situations, to be deferent to our superiors, but the real point of my letter was to suggest that we redirect our deference to those who serve us. I'm sorry if this didn't come accross in what is, granted, otherwise a very humble message.